Question of the Day

Margaret Cho shares a story of regrettable unkindness today, about a boy named Tobias whom she hurt in a way that stays with her still. Such deliberate but uncalculated meanness—not foot-in-mouthity, or forgetfulness, or other unintentional slights and insensitivities in which we all engage, but a direct and intrepid lash of malice that gives way to an immediate, crimson-cheeked scorching shame—seems a particular mark of childhood. I remember being on the receiving end of seemingly inexplicable and unexpected meanness, but, reading Margaret’s piece, I remembered more clearly a boy named Charles.

Charles was slow. That’s what he was called—not retarded (which is what kids in the special education classes were called then), not special needs, not learning disabled, not autistic or ADHD or any other sort of helpful descriptor that might have given some insight into what made him different, or why he was enrolled in regular classes. Looking backwards, I have no idea what his actual issues were; at the time, to the rest of us, the chubby kid in the soda bottle bottom glasses, who just seemed especially goofy and annoying in kindergarten, seemed catastrophically immature by about third grade, and gravely misplaced by about fifth.

Charles (sometimes Chuck, but usually Charles) was sweet; if he had any sense that he had reason to feel shortchanged, the ever-present grin on his face didn’t divulge it. He was happy all the time, and just wanted to be liked and included. Most of the kids were mean to him for just that reason, I think—his perennial cheerfulness, even in spite of their attempts to exclude him, made them feel that much guiltier.

I was never mean to Charles in elementary school, although I never went out of my way to be nice to him, either. I stood up for him if ignoring him turned into picking on him, but it was just out of principle, not out of any fondness for Charles. The truth is, I hated him. He clung to me because I wasn’t mean to him, and because he adored my mom. My mom was around the school a lot, and most of the kids knew her because she painted popular characters on the walls—Sesame Street down by the kindergarten classes and Disney by the older kids’ classes. And every time she was at the school, Charles would find her and give her a hug, and because she knew he needed lots of hugs, she was always happy to give them.

Sometimes, we’d see Charles out in public. He’d scream my mom’s name and run over for a hug. Inevitably, some kid from school would be around, too, snickering. It embarrassed the hell out of me every time, and I’d hate him a little bit more.

Right through high school, Charles would always yell at me every time he saw me in the halls: “Hi, Melissa! Tell your mom I said hi, okay?”

“Okay, Charles. I will.” Red-faced. Steaming. Mad at him because I was embarrassed of myself, for being mad at him. The illogical circularity just made me madder. At him.

The last day of senior year, kids were milling around taking pictures and signing each other’s memory books. Somehow, signing yearbooks had become uncool. Charles came up to me with (of course) his yearbook and asked me to sign it. “You can be the first one to sign my yearbook, Melissa!” he announced, far too loudly, as was his way.

I will never understand why I didn’t just take his book and his marker and write something nice to him and sign my name.

“No,” I said flatly, and shook my head.

His face dropped, crushed, and I just stared back at him. I know he must have wanted to ask me why, but he read it in my stony face: I wouldn’t have put my name in that book for a million dollars; if I could have ripped out the page with my picture, I would have.

Eventually, he just walked away.

The story should end there, because I don’t deserve redeeming, but the truth is, I found Charles awhile later and asked if I could still sign his yearbook. It’s a hazy recollection, not nearly as accessible as the memory, the feeling, of myself being so needlessly cruel. I’d probably think it was a wholesale creation of my remorseful psyche had I not seen Charles once more, when I was visiting home from college. After screaming at me and hugging me in the middle of K-Mart, just like old times, he told me he would always remember me because I was the first one to sign his yearbook. I wish he were able to remember me for something I had done out of kindness, rather than guilt.

Do you have an unkindness that you regret?

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus